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Personable, "Oyster"

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M. Geddes Gengras’s Collected Works (The Moog Years) was a huge album for me, but one of reasons that it is so great is that it distilled the best material from several tapes and several years of work.  I wish such retrospectives were more frequent: Gengras’s prodigious output has an exasperating tendency to dilute his artistry, as he is extremely restless in his creative evolution and it seems like every new step winds up publicly documented.  That tendency is probably cool for obsessive fans, but it also has the unfortunate result of leaving a voluminous wake of releases that fail to live up to their potential.  Granted, Gengras is never short on ideas–I just wish he would linger on them long enough to craft something lasting and great more often.  Consequently, this latest record under Gengras's analog techno guise is quite a wonderful surprise, capturing him in unwaveringly fine form.  This is exactly the kind of album that I was hoping for.

Opal Tapes

Despite my love of The Moog Years, Personable is probably my favorite of Gengras's many projects, as the pulse and mesmerizing repetition of techno is the perfect foil for his burbling and twinkling synthesizer wizardry.  More importantly, he seems to have deep intuitive grasp of the form's mechanics and knows how to use its components to maximum effect.  Also, his vision is anything but static: on 2012's Spontaneous Generation, he sounded like a sped-up, hyper-visceral twist on early Tangerine Dream.  Four years later, Oyster almost sounds like the work of a completely different artist: replacing barreling momentum with stripped-down, understated, and perversely hooky sophistication and crystalline clarity.  The excellent opener "Gambetti," for example, sounds like a somewhat caffeinated instrumental dub remix of a great Kraftwerk song.  At the very least, it is a dynamic wonder, embellishing its throbbing pulse with spectral and dissipating snatches of melody and a complex arsenal of textural and percussive touches.  In theory, a four-on-the-floor beat and a simple repeating bass line is about as straightforward as dance music can possibly get, but Gengras juggles his snares and cymbals so expertly that it all feels deliciously unpredictable, vibrant, and organic.

Curiously, the following "Window" is built from very similar components, but twists the groove into something much more stumbling and stuttering.  It is not quite as strong as "Gambetti," but it is a neat trick nonetheless, as it is filled with odd lags and idiosyncrasies that continually disrupt its forward motion.  It feels like there are three or four different musicians involved and they are all intent on ratcheting up the intensity, yet rarely ever manage to all be in sync at the same time.  The following "Oyster," on the other hand, returns to the unmolested and infectious momentum of the opener, but transforms the formula with the addition of blurting, dynamically shifting bass notes; a relentlessly insistent one-note synth pulse; and some appealingly dubby percussion flourishes.  It is probably the most minimal piece on the entire album, but it works beautifully because its unstoppable flow handily compensates for the lack of hooks.  Also, the lack of a strong melody provide lots of room for Gengras to play around with echoing and panning arpeggios and fills.  The highpoint of the album, however, is the divergent, lush, and fluttering closer "Cormorant."  While a thumping beat eventually kicks in, the piece is not at all typical for Personable, sounding much more like a gorgeously warm and melodic drone piece embellished by a wonderful array of hallucinatory squeaks, creaks, and echoes.

If Oyster can be said to have a weakness, it is only that the two songs that comprise its first half sound so similar to one another.  Viewed as variations on a theme, however, they do make an interesting pair.  More importantly, the weaknesses that I actually expected and thought were inherently unavoidable turned out not to be issues at all: while Gengras's modular synthesizers are absolutely delightful on a textural and dynamic level, they do not lend themselves at all well to multi-part compositions.  Everything is unavoidably pattern-based, so these four songs are all essentially sophisticated vamps on a groove.  In lesser hands, that would be a real problem when songs regularly tend to extend for 8, 10, or 12 minutes.  In Gengras's hands, however, these pieces rarely overstay their welcome and he manages to start and stop them with seamless grace.  The execution, lightness of touch, and attention to detail are all superb here–Gengras definitely makes the most of his inherently limiting set-up.  In fact, Oyster is easily one of his strongest albums to date, both creatively and in terms of sheer craftsmanship.

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Last Updated on Monday, 25 July 2016 18:52  


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